SALT LAKE CITY — It turns out that recessions are great, if you're in the car insurance business.

The reason goes something like this: A bad economy means more people have financial difficulties, of course, which can mean their credit scores drop. Many insurance companies use credit scores to determine the rates they charge. The rate goes up as the score goes down.

That means that even if a person is a good driver, their insurance rates can go up if financial troubles ding their credit score, resulting in more profits for the insurance company.

And those companies are not winning customers' hearts by using that windfall to lower rates. Instead, they're using that extra cash to woo new customers through clever, high-end TV ads. That is why there is a bumper crop of insurance ads on TV.

Industry watchers are calling it an all-out media war. The Nielsen Co. said car insurance companies spent $1.46 billion on TV ads in 2009, $1.85 billion in 2010 and $1.97 billion in 2011.

Progressive's perky, red-lipsticked "Flo," Allstate's "Mr. Mayhem" and a whole field of character-driven campaigns for GEICO — including its little green gecko, urban cavemen and a piggy named Maxwell — are unavoidable on TV.

"It seems like there's a real fierce competition right now in TV advertising among the big-name insurance companies," said Scott Rockwood, chief executive officer of the Richter7 advertising and digital marketing agency in Salt Lake City.

Crafting effective advertising is tough because, well, it's car insurance we're talking about — not something people want to spend a lot of time on. What other service or product can you be compelled by law to buy just to hope you never use it? And if you do have to file an insurance claim, it means that something bad has happened.

"We live in a world of instant gratification, and frankly there's not a lot of instant gratification when you're selling insurance," Rockwood said.

Plus, the details of insurance coverage are too complicated to say much in a 30-second TV spot, Rockwood points out. So the insurance TV battle focuses on clever bits designed to entertain viewers and, hopefully, plant a positive image about the brand.

"I think people are finding that these highly creative, engaging, sometimes funny commercials are working for them," Rockwood said.

Evidence that people are watching — parodies of the advertising characters are popping up on YouTube. There are a number of videos online with people mimicking GEICO's Maxwell the Piggy, even more spoofing the cavemen, and parodies or re-mixes of the Progressive ads featuring Flo.

I'm waiting for a collective parody that pits the characters against each other in a good, old-fashioned smackdown.

In the meantime, my insurance rates may not go down, but I can always count on having a lizard that will talk to me on the TV.

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Twitter: SteveFidel